The Three Dastardly D’s: Derailing a Discussion on a Distribution list

Over the last three or four years I've seen an increasing trend here at MS: complaints about off-topic discussions on DLs. A thread will start out on a DL and (since we're all human), at some point (if the thread is interesting and complex enough), someone will reply with a thought that veers off in a different direction, forks the original intent of the thread, and various people contribute on the new fork.

Many people's reaction to this is to complain - "This is off-topic and there are 50/500/1500 people on this DL, so stop including the DL on the reply all and just continue the conversation between the individuals." Now if the DL is say the Dog Lovers DL, and the topic veers off into a political debate, I get that. It's just so completely unrelated that it doesn't make sense. But isn't there a line somewhere? What about - to pick a (completely random) example (not at all plucked from real life) here - a bloggers DL? Here we have a group of people who are already defined by A) their interest in talking about things and very likely B) a broad range of topics about which they like to talk.

There are a variety of aspects to this issue, and here are my thoughts on some of them:

  • Mailbox size: At Microsoft we are fortunate in that we have fairly high mailbox quotas (I'm uh, not going to mention what mine is, being on the team that develops the email product does give one certain perks :-). This is not the case at all organizations, so for places where the mailbox quota is small enough that each new thread risks putting you at your quota, it's totally reasonable to expect a different DL usage pattern. But if your mailbox quota is 100, 200, 500 megs - is it really a big concern?
  • Mail management:

    1. I get the impression that some people must not use rules to filter mail sent to some DLs to other folders. In this case it's definitely a hassle if an off-topic conversation shows up in your inbox. But why not use rules? For DLs whose purpose is 100% strictly work focused, non-filtering can make sense. But for a more social or vague DL topic (say for example to pick a completely random DL topic again - blogging), why would you do this?
    2. If you do filter a DL into another folder, try turning on group by conversation in Outlook (View | Arrange By | Conversation), collapse the groups by default and make sure View | Expand/Collapse Groups | Always show unread and flagged messages is unchecked. This makes it quite easy to operate on threads by conversation, deleting an entire thread at once. Works best for internal DLs. Shift+Delete can be used to remove the thread from your store entirely so that it stops counting against your quota (and if deleted items retention (aka dumpster) is enabled, you could still get the thread back with Outlook or OWA if you wanted)

I started a DL a few years ago for a certain target audience, for a semi-social but still tangentially work-related topic. It started out with about 20 people on it and quickly grew to about 50 where it stayed for a while. It became a little community, we knew each others' names, kids' names, many of us knew each other in person, I would schedule monthly lunches, etc. As time passed, the DL grew and grew and grew; it was around 500 members the last time I checked. And over this time period it moved from this community feel to what I call a "Compile DL" (see below). Over that same time period I also stepped down as DL owner because I was getting too wrapped up in politics (yes! politics of a DL! I hadn't known that existed until I was an owner of a large DL) - from what exactly the DL description was (was it misleading? invited people to join who weren't the target audience?) to whether or not I would "police" the DL when the reply-alls got out of hand or if the discussion went completely off-topic to the display name of the DL. I wasn't willing to be the policer and didn't agree with the approach some members took on who should or shouldn't be involved in the DL, so I found someone else to take over and gradually removed myself from what had at one point been a nice friendly community. It's still to this day a useful DL as far as the information exchanged on it... but there are a lot of ways to get information these days.

I've seen a few solutions in place for managing these issues on DLs:

  • A Compile DL: This can happen organically or on purpose. On a Compile DL, someone sends a question to the DL, people who have a suggestion or an answer will reply privately, and then the question-asker is supposed to compile the answers and send it back to the DL. And if someone were to reply all to the question instead of directly to the asker, well they will promptly be smacked down and told to "little r" in microspeak. In the above example I described where I was the owner, my successor ended up setting up an infopath/sharepoint solution (a really awesome one if I do say so myself) so that the question-asker could simply post the question on the sharepoint site, send a link, and then people could add their answers via the form, and so the person didn't spend time putting together the compile on their own.
  • Separate one DL into two: Another strategy I have seen employed (and I do like this approach, at least for the DL for which I've seen this used, it makes a lot of sense) is to have two DLs: "Foo" and "Foo Announcements". Then, the owner of Foo sets up a rule that says "For each mail sent to the DL, if it is a new thread rather than a reply, then auto-forward it to Foo Announcements". The discussion can continue on Foo, and people who want strictly the facts, ma'am can subscribe to Foo Announcements. This works well for DLs with an "announce/discuss" split where someone will post an announcement, and other people will discuss it. If all you want is the initial announcement, you can get it. If you want the discourse, you can get that. (I think people still complain about "too much discourse" on the Foo DL from time to time - although I'm no longer on it, so that may have changed :-).
  • Appoint an official policeman/woman. This person will take up the charge whenever a possible randomizer enters the fray. Replied all to a question instead of little R? Expect to get a private email reminding you of the topic of the DL, the number of people on it, the number of bytes you just took up on the mail servers, etc. Often the DL owner gets forced into this position - when X people on the DL complain to you about the offshoots of a thread, do you just ignore them or do you feel 'pressed into service'?

Overall, my reaction to seeing this happen time and time again on DL after DL is disappointment. I like internal DLs, I like having discussions about work or even non-work-related topics on these DLs. I like getting to know the people who participate in these DLs by reading their opinions and thoughts on a variety of issues. I like it when someone cracks a joke, even if there's no other content in their mail (of course, it's gotta be funny, but I'll still give credit to someone who tries :-). I feel like this movement away from "DL communities" is a step back and I am losing connections with other people.

I do participate in a variety of public community forums but it's just not the same - web boards are clunkier to use IMO than email, blog comments are OK but the technology's not there yet to completely replace this kind of information exchange, I just don't read newsgroups anymore as I don't want to keep yet another client with locally-cached state I need to manage and keep track of, etc. There's also something to be said for being able to make a base level of assumption about the rest of the community - a certain age, a certain level of professionalism, a certain level of technical knowledge, etc.

I've also ended up in a few situations where there's been a splinter of a few people from a DL that I keep in touch with in separate threads. So rather than sending something to the DL, we might fwd a thread from the DL to each other for further discussion. This is OK but obviously limited and only works if you manage to make those connections in the first place, so that you can know who is of a like mind that you'd want to splinter off with.

What about at other organizations? What's going on with internal DLs where you work? Are you seeing similar trends? How do you feel about the issues I described above?

Comments (5)

  1. Steve says:

    every night EVERY NIGHT I hear the following, "Goddamn mail limit!"

  2. John says:

    We’re all grown ups here, and we should know how to use Outlook filters. If the discussion becomes uninteresting to you, stop reading. The whining "oh stop, this is an alias read by 1500!" is just so darn RUDE, as it assumes that person knows what everyone else is thinking. Just stop commenting, and it will die. Commenting about comments asking comments to be limited just makes things worse 🙂

    I would hope we’re mature enough to avoid Usenet flamewars going on for weeks.

  3. 1GIG says:

    Our company quota is 1 gig per employee. Disk space is cheap. Let the people rant. 🙂

  4. gerrard says:

    DL splitting improves things somewhat, but there are still plenty of self-appointed DL police ready to chime in with "please move this foo discussion to the foo DL". Very annoying…I swear most of those people do it just for the kick of getting to correct someone.

  5. Anthony says:

    i love the infopath/sharepoint idea. Would you post a screenshot?

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